Cincinnati Bengals: Best wide receivers in team history, No. 3

1 Nov 1998: Wide receiver Carl Pickens #81 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on during the game against the Denver Broncos at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Broncos defeated the Bengals 33-26. Mandatory Credit: Mark Lyons /Allsport
1 Nov 1998: Wide receiver Carl Pickens #81 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on during the game against the Denver Broncos at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Broncos defeated the Bengals 33-26. Mandatory Credit: Mark Lyons /Allsport /

Moving into the heart of our countdown of the greatest wide receivers in Cincinnati Bengals franchise history, we now look at No. 3.

At long last, training camp is essentially upon us. Though the Cincinnati Bengals still have a few more days before veterans will report, it’s going to be great to have actual football and news to work with. But in the meantime, we’ve been taking a look back in time as it pertains to the Bengals.

Throughout the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the best players in the history of the Bengals franchise. These looks started with the quarterbacks and running backs, and have since moved on to the wide receivers.

Today we will look at the No. 3 wide receiver in franchise history.

3. Carl Pickens

We all know the 1990s were a terrible time for this franchise. From 1991-99, there may not have been a consistently worse organization, with the team going 43-101 in that time while never producing a winning record and ending six campaigns with at least 11 losses. Even the worst teams tend to have bright spots, but this team was so abysmal on all fronts that it even managed to ruin those as well.

Pickens is a perfect example of that. For much of the 90s, he was the best offensive weapon for a team which badly needed one to even be a middling club. Prior to the 1997 addition of Corey Dillon, no skill position player came close to challenging Pickens’ spot as the best skill position contributor for the team that decade (granted, much of Pickens’ best work prior to Dillon coming in was just in the three year stretch right before his arrival, but remember: this team was completely god-awful).

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1993 was where Pickens first began showing signs of what he would become. Entering that season, he had just one touchdown catch and no games with 50+ receiving yards. In it, he would catch six times as many touchdowns while surpassing 50+ receiving yards on five occasions. His game the day after Christmas that year (six receptions, 72 yards, two touchdowns in a 21-17 win over Atlanta) provided a peek at the levels he would soon be hitting.

Then came 1994-96. The Bengals never managed a winning record in those years, but none of that can be blamed on Pickens, as he was one of the top receivers league-wide for this stretch. In each of these years, he had at least 71 catches, 1,127 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. In the 47 games he played in that time, he had at least five catches on 30 separate occasions and had 100+ receiving yards 13 different times.

The most impressive part of his play may have been his propensity for touchdowns. In that stretch, he caught at least one touchdown more often than he ended a contest with none (27-20), had three separate stretches of five-or-more-straight games with a touchdown catch, and nine different times Pickens came down with two or more touchdowns. He even led the league in touchdown catches in 1995 (17).

That stretch saw him among the best in the league at his position, but he wouldn’t reach those heights again. The next three years saw Dillon become the offense’s focal point, and alongside Pickens came the emergence of one of the challengers for this list in Darnay Scott. Still, Pickens was still good enough to be an important part of the offense.

In the ensuing three seasons, he would post five more 100 yard games, 16 more touchdowns, another 1,000-yard season (1998), and his best single-game performance ever (a 13 catch, 204 yard, one touchdown performance in a win over Pittsburgh in 1998).

By the end of the 1999 season, Pickens would stand as the franchise leader for receptions (530) and receiving touchdowns (63), while sitting a mere 214 yards behind Isaac Curtis for the franchise mark for receiving yards (6,887 for Pickens; 7,101 for Curtis) — and doing so in 47 less games. Barring some ridiculous circumstances, that record also appeared in reach, and Pickens was set to be Cincinnati’s best receiver in history entering the 2000s.

Of course, this is Cincinnati in the Bungles era, so you know something ridiculous was inevitable. In the 2000 offseason, Bengals owner and source of fandom ire Mike Brown what became known as the Carl Pickens clause. This was the notoriously thin-skinned Brown’s way to try stemming the tide of players who would make negative statements about the franchise, essentially allowing him to decide not to pay out contractually-obligated bonuses if his players said anything he didn’t like to the media. Pickens’ name is often attached to this because he was one of the first to suffer the effects of it, with his comments following the team keeping Bruce Coslet (and his 21-36 head coaching record) around opening him up to forfeiting signing bonus money.

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Pickens would eventually garner the yardage needed to surpass Curtis on the league-wide career charts, but he would climb no higher in the Cincinnati record books, as the Bengals’ loyalty clause caused irreconcilable problems which forced Pickens out of the organization. Just like that, the man who gave the franchise some of its only hope and positivity across a decade was gone.

The ending to his time with the team was ugly. The owner consistently proved that he didn’t deserve the sort of effort and excellence Pickens continually provided. Pickens’ place in team history shouldn’t be downgraded for the idiocy of Brown’s frail ego, though. At the time he left no receiver had ever been better for the franchise, and had it not been for some incredible play in the next two decades, he may well still lead the list. Still, his impact was more than enough to firmly place him at #3 on this list.